Saturday, May 20, 2006

Getty Villa...

Made my way up to Malibu yesterday to check out the brand spanking new(ly restored) Getty Villa. I was really looking forward to taking in LA's latest mega culture center, and based on the utopian Mount Olympus splendor of the Getty Center, my architectural expectations were admittedly high. So, I'll begin by saying: if THAT is the best today's money can buy (assuming that money is no object to the Getty Foundation) then we are all doomed. The place (not the art) is a testament to the death of quality control.

Like many new buildings in Los Angeles, this place will look good in pictures. But in person there is absolutely zero gestalt. Nothing holds together. And there are no details, just big pieces crunched together. What you see is a mishmash of minimal and maximal styles and ideas coated with a cold institutional glaze. The workmanship is shoddy - the joints, the corners, the lines. Sloppy. The "wow" moments are quick to fade as the eye tries to make sense of the visual chaos. For example, you chance upon the large square center courtyard garden (or "Inner Peristyle", seen in the photo) and for a second you gasp - the light and the colors, the plants and the long reflecting pool all seem like great ingredients. But then... thud. It fails to delight or uplift in any way. This subtle air of disappointment happens in little increments over and over, leaving you somehow overstuffed and yet still hungry. My guess is that the Roman emperors would laugh and turn the place into slave quarters.

Of course there are some nice moments too. There is a raised goldfish pond way in the back when you first walk in (past the impressive amphitheater) that casts a serene spell. The large staircase and surrounding walls leading to the second floor are made of some very unusual, prominently veined, golden marble. One of the walls has a pleasing concave groove cut into it as if to invite your hand to skim along each textured slab as you climb. There's a funny kid's corner where you can draw on lifesize plastic Grecian urns in erasable felt tip markers. The scale is about right for a three or four hour visit.

The curators are smart to keep the smallish items in well lit cases. Up close, you can forget about all the pomposity and just enjoy the art against a white backdrop. The same can not be said for some of the larger works, many of which are in direct competition with the Vegas-style faux Roman decor, featuring some rooms completely decked out in dizzying arrays of gaudy marble hues. I felt bad for some of those magnificnet old relics having to live there.

The art is the reason to come. Note that the Villa is all about JP Getty's classical fixation, so if the art and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria ain't your thing, you'll just have to hang out in the coffee shop. But you shouldn't. There are some truly spectacular works and antiquities (some unbelievably over 5000 years old) scattered throughout.

Seeing all of this exquisite craftsmanship happily confirms that these cultures had no global industry to sustain, no bottom lines to meet, no corners to cut. Quality control was a non-issue for the ancient Etruscans, Greeks and Romans. The idea of doing something sub-par was simply not in the cards. Especially when you condiser that artisans must have been revered as the magicians in their day. They were in constant demand and probably led good lives, because of their consistent ability to lift the spirits with their beautiful work.

Funny, in one room there is an obvious fake statue of a Greek soldier cast in cheez doodle orange marble. The lines of his body and face are definitely from the post-Nike "just do it" music video era. And yet the accompanying card dares to suggest that scholars are still trying to decide if it is authentic or not. Any chimp can see that this piece is younger than I am. But, I suppose it provides a little controversy for us tabloid-fed artgoers, so why not.

Speaking of provenance, the rumor is that JP Getty bought an Italian seaside renaissance villa back in the 50s on the tip that there was an ancient Roman villa buried underneath. And not just any villa, but one of Julius Caesar's seaside retreats. Getty backed one of his huge cargo ships right up to the cliff below the villa and spent years tearing apart the renaissance shell (which was an invaluable treasure itself), excavating priceless ancient artifacts by the dozens, and tossing them onto the US bound cargo ship. Of course this is completely illegal. As we've learned from recent tales of stolen art, European art belongs to the country of origin. So you can't help but wonder how many of the pieces in the Getty Villa were pillaged in this spirited act of supermogul piracy.

I'd like to see a battalion of Italian schooners pull into Santa Monica Bay loaded down with sword wielding Uffizi curators and staffers come to take back their stolen booty. That would be the best of all possible scenarios the Getty Villa could hope for.


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